ORLANDO — Most encouraging for the Celtics in their 132-96 blowout of the Orlando Magic on Wednesday night was Evan Fournier looked as comfortable as he has since joining the Celtics.
It was his comeback game after seven seasons in Orlando, and the organization greeted him with a tribute video after the first period and the Amway Center crowd and his former teammates acknowledged his contributions.
But he would have rather returned under more successful circumstances. Fournier has been debilitated by COVID-19, so much so he saw a specialist when his return was stymied by concussion-like symptoms.
The coronavirus has different effects on different players and it took a painful toll on Fournier and teammate Jayson Tatum. Tatum has been able to respond and come back to 100 percent production while Fournier is hoping his Boston stint won’t be highlighted by his health issues.
He wants to contribute to a long playoff run. What’s more, the Celtics need an effective Fournier to have any opportunity to win a first-round series and compete among the conference’s elite teams.
“As far an Evan, it’s important,” guard Kemba Walker said. “We’ve got to get him going. We know what he’s capable of. I know what he’s capable of. He’s going to be huge for us going down the stretch. We need him. Big time.”
Fournier scored 18 points with 5 rebounds and 4 assists in the Celtics’ win as he tries to concentrate more on basketball a week after just trying to see clearly while on the floor. Fournier said the bright lights of TD Garden blurred his eyesight in the days after his return.
Fournier is trying to approach normalcy but the impact of COVID-19 has changed his approach to basketball.
“I think the main thing and my main focus is to get better, first of all,” he said. “I’m going to do everything I can to go back to feeling great, just being myself. That’s really what I spent my day on, my No. 1 priority in life right now is feeling better.”
The impact of a healthy Fournier is uncertain because he hasn’t been healthy. But the Celtics desperately need another shot maker, especially from the 3-point line. Fournier also was able to attack the basket and score on floaters as well as set up his teammates, including Walker, who tallied 32 points in 28 minutes after a four-game absence.
That combination was effective on a night when the Celtics needed an easy win. The Magic were outmanned and shorthanded and Boston did what it was supposed to do, batter a bad team and move on to the next challenge.
The night was designed for confidence. Walker needed one of those bounce-back games and he looked fast, fleet-footed and effective. Fournier appears to be getting more comfortable with taking rhythm shots and attacking the rim. It’s the Fournier the Celtics coveted when they acquired him on March 25.
To no fault of his own, he has not yet been that guy.
“Once I feel better, I’m very motivated to show everyone what I can do and how I can help this team,” he said. “With time, I’m going to feel better and better and things are going to be easier for me. I don’t need extra motivation. I’m a very dedicated guy. I give 100 percent in everything that I do and I’ll show you guys how hungry I am to play well for [the Celtics].”
Getting Fournier back to full speed is the most important priority of the final 10 days of the Celtics season. He has taken one vaccination shot and is doing daily exercises to reduce the concussion-like symptoms. The unfortunate assumption is that COVID-19 could not significantly impact the body of a professional athlete, but that’s proven to be so untrue.
There has to be a level of patience given to Fournier — and Tatum — because we had no idea what they are enduring, physically. Remember when Tatum scored a season-low 6 points in a Feb. 14 loss at Washington? Tatum apparently could barely breathe at certain points because of COVID-19 after-effects and played just 23 minutes.
He later admitted using an inhaler prior to games to improve his breathing. These guys aren’t machines. They are normal human beings and it will take months or even years to realize the full impact of COVID-19 on professional athletes.
Four of the Celtics’ five starters Wednesday — Fourier, Tatum, Marcus Smart and Robert Williams — have had coronavirus as well as center Tristan Thompson, reserve guard Carsen Edwards and backup forward Romeo Langford. Jaylen Brown and Grant Williams spent time in COVID-19 protocol because of contact tracing.
And while the positive results have decreased around the league, the NBA revealed this week that four more players contracted the virus. It’s not safe to assume that these players will just chill for 10 days in quarantine and then return 100 percent, unaffected.
That’s not what happened with Tatum and that has not happened with Fournier. Returning to previous form may never happen for either player. The virus remains such an uncertainty that recovery is a day-to-day process. Fournier said he is improving and he definitely understands his importance to the Celtics’ fate.
“With this team that has a lot of playoff experience, it’s really going to be on us to play as good as we can to make that run,” he said. “I think I can play a huge part in that and like I said me feeling better and learning the system more and learning to play with my teammates more and more is going to help that.”